THE BLOG @ TIR
May 21, 2012
Well, it’s official. I am a full-fledged member of the real world. Maybe it’s too soon to make the call, but five days post-cap-and-gown, not much seems different. Classes are over. Homework is done. Iowa City is emptying. There’s an abandoned bed in the dumpster of my apartment and an outside trash-bag radius that is exponentially expanding further and further outward. My roommates have gone home for the summer, and there’s all the room in the world for my food in the refrigerator now. I’ve been watching a lot of Netflix. It could be just any other summer. But part of me knows I’m in denial, or at least avoidance. The summer I’m imagining is the same sunny stretch I always think of, the slow heat, lightning bugs, thunderstorms; the idealized summer I will never let go of, no matter how old I get. But I don’t let my mind cross into fall, when my best friend and three-year roommate will be a Yale grad student rather than a Hawkeye. When the majority of amazing people I’ve met, gotten to know, and love dearly will not be returning for another year of Iowa City frolics. When there will be no new classes, no book lists, no need to buy new pens. When I will no longer be the Iowa Review intern.
Dang it. Now I’m thinking about it, and it’s making me weepy. This month has been a month of accomplishments and congratulations, but there’s no way around the fact that it is a month of endings. Nostalgia is as inevitable as applause.
At the graduation ceremony, our class speaker, John Komdat, talked about how graduation is a time when the past and the future meet at one moment, the present. I was enthralled with this idea because after spending the school year writing a thesis about time travel, my ears perk up at any mention of time; but the more I thought about what he said, the more I realized how creepily accurate it was in relation to my life. The day before graduation, John and I had been sat together in the "K" row for the Honors Commendation Ceremony and had our first extended conversation, even though I knew him from freshman year when we were both living on the Writing Floor in Stanley. There had been some head nods and half-waves during our four years, but talking to him and seeing so many other people I consider acquaintances from freshman year suddenly seemed to bring my college career full circle, a twist ending on the universe’s brilliantly constructed plot. In a single moment, we were awkward freshman and graduating seniors painfully aware of how uncool we had actually been back then.
The same thing happened at my goodbye party from the Iowa Review. I laughed at my jokes from my very first blog post (Intern Schrute, Assisant TO the Managing Editor—classic) and then had to answer that question that’s been haunting me ever since I declared my English major, except now it has mutated from “What are you going to do after you graduate?” to “What are you going to do now?” The staff and I were sitting there at Atlas, and I saw myself both as that scared sophomore who wandered into 302 EPB on a half-formed ambition and a fear of the future and as the mature (“mature”) present-tense me, still scared and still worried about the future but with some thin sprouts of a plan. What am I going to do now? This or that. Working. Saving. Writing. It’s not exotic. It’s not the Peace Corps or backpacking in Europe or moving to New York, but it’s enough for now, and if my internship with the Iowa Review shows anything, it’s that good things can’t always be planned. Sometimes they have to be stumbled upon.
The most comforting thing is seeing that what I did here at Iowa matters, that I’ve left something behind me and made at least a dent of a difference in the flow of the cosmos. I see it in the enthusiasm of my family and friends, my Iowa Review family, my professors, my coworkers. I see it in their reminiscing, the scenes they recall, the moments that they consider important. It’s a perspective we can’t have often, but when we do, we can see for miles. There is no better feeling than when people you admire greatly admire you back. Sometimes I get so focused on the unknown variables ahead that the past fades into obscurity—just checks on a To Do list. It takes a moment when the past and future line up to understand the significance of the journey—what we’ve done and what we will do running side by side. A river, so to speak. A moment in the present poised between nostalgia and uncertainty reveals just how much we’ve already done, which helps to counter that fearful open-endedness of the future, at least enough that we can continue to plunge ahead.
And with that, I guess I’ve come to the part where I have to say goodbye. Goodbye, Iowa Review! Goodbye, student-hood! Goodbye, goodbye and thank you.
May 17, 2012
We are happy to announce that Jeanne Shoemaker’s short story “Sonny Criss” (41/2) has been selected for a 2012 Pushcart Prize. Shoemaker admits that she wrote the story to get out of writing an essay for a class called “Forms & Techniques of the Short Story.”
“Another student told me that in the previous year someone had submitted a short story in lieu of the essay. One of the suggested essay topics was The Western, so I wrote a 10,000-word western called ‘Sonny Criss’ instead of the 3,000-word essay—I felt like I’d really gotten away with something. My professor wouldn’t accept the story, however, and I had to negotiate with her. ‘How about 70% story, 30% essay?’ I suggested. Eventually, she agreed to 50/50. The essay part was terrible, but ‘Sonny Criss’ got me a fellowship to The Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2008. It was the first short story I ever wrote.”
But getting into a program wasn’t the same as getting into print, and Shoemaker would end up sending the story to over forty literary magazines, all of which rejected it, before it came to us.
“I kept sending it out because I felt I had something to say with this story, something I discovered while writing it. I had recreated a world that doesn’t exist any longer—a world I miss terribly. As a child I’d lived with my grandparents in Wyoming, and the characters of Delpha and Will are closely modeled on them, though the story is wholly fictional.”
“We can all be tricked by cleverness and other conceits. Writing with an open heart is hard to do. I wrote this story with an open heart.”
May 14, 2012
A writer whose name I've now forgotten came to town earlier this spring and did a little craft session on self-publicity. I think he was a memoirist primarily, with a couple of books out, one of which had sold pretty well. He had a lot of suggestions, some of them very concrete, like "tweet three times daily," and "go to book festivals," and "see who the best, most prolific reviewers are on Amazon and make contact with them." I wrote these and other things down in my notebook one by one, my heart growing heavier with each tidbit. I am still trying to make sense of my reaction.
Today I was reading Julie Bosman's NYTimes piece on the changing work of writers in the era of e-readers, and I had a similar reaction. For the most part, her piece is about genre fiction, and the attempts of publishers to stay competitive with other media: it's understandable that they would turn to their authors to help, asking their most successful sellers to produce more, write faster. This makes sense.
But when Ms. Bosman notes, in a tellingly parenthetical paragraph that,
"The new expectations do not apply to literary novelists like Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen, who can publish a new novel approximately every decade and still count on plenty of high-profile book reviews to promote it,"
I am struck by two images of the writer at either extreme edge of a very skewed picture. On one side is someone who works for years polishing and honing, at the other someone who tweets three times daily, or churns out two books a year and digital-only short stories as a priming mechanism for later "e-book impulse purchases for consumers with Nooks or Kindles."
The explanation that "today's readers seem incapable of being overwhelmed [by content]" has me scratching my head. Who are these readers and where are they finding the time to read all this content that they can't get enough of, I wonder? Is it just an internal market that was never properly explored before the advent of the digital? Or might the digital allow for a kind of waste that would be unthinkable in a material publishing world? It is not uplifting to imagine entire libraries' full of impulse-purchased tomes filling up the House of Fame.
May 10, 2012
Just back from the Pedogogies of Translation conference at Barnard College last weekend. While the title doesn't suggest that people were beating down the doors to get in, it was a full house, with plenty of lively debate and discussion. The event was sponsored by Barnard's Center for Translation Studies and co-organized by center director Peter Connor and translation studies scholar and translator Lawrence Venuti. TIR patrons may recall that Venuti's "Towards a Translation Culture" was the inaugural essay in its Forum on Literature and Translation last year.
The conference featured teachers of translation from an array of institutional domains, from applied linguistics to comparative literature and creative writing. Topics ranged from hands on intra-lingual writing exercises to computer-assisted, technology driven approaches, and a number of broad culture- and theory-based discussions that included post-coloniality, poetics, cultural studies, information technology, and more.
Mr. Venuti had asked three of us (David Johnston from Queens University, Belfast), Natalia Teplova (from Concordia University, Montreal, and me) not to prepare a formal presentation in advance but instead to listen to the various approaches and do some comparative work during the last panel on Saturday. As a result, I don't think I have worked so hard at a conference since I was in graduate school. A snippet from my notes are in the pic above. (David leaned over as I was preparing to give my comments and said, "Good luck reading that.")
Despite the effort, the work was no chore, and I learned myriad new things, both in terms of teaching techniques and facts. I was, for instance, struck by the considered classroom use of multiple musical performances of one and the same piece of instrumental music by Peter Filkins for his undergraduate creative writing seminars at Bard College; and, for another instance, Susan Bernofsky's formation of the reading list for her translation workshop based on the students who are in the class, which is only possible if (a) you know the field extremely well; and (b) you're paying close attention to the people in your class.
From a quite different angle, I was struck by some of the statistics cited by Francoise Massardier-Kenney, for instance, that translation is among the top ten fastest growing business sectors worldwide, that by conservative estimates 42% of that market is in the U.S. while the U.S. has a miniscule number of programs that actually teach translation; or by John Balcom, for instance, that 95% of translations currently being done into English from Chinese are being done by native speakers of Chinese, and that they are being taught to do this primarily by other native speakers of Chinese, and the comment of a Chinese government official, who said that "the Americans will never learn to translate Chinese works into English, so we will have to do it for them."
There was much more like this and not like this, and I wrote down a number of book titles, and had some really enjoyable and informative conversations with people during the breaks and over meals.
But I noticed something somewhere into the second day, and I assume I noticed it because I've been in Iowa's rather MFA-centric writing environment these past years, and editing a literary magazine that features translated poetry, fiction, and occasionally literary essays alongside non-translated work. TIR makes no real distinction between these categories when we read submissions. We do not treat translations as a "genre" of its own. If a poem is translated, it's a poem, not a translated poem. At least that's what we think is going on, but it's of course always more complicated, harder to see exactly, because, well, it is a translated poem after all, which means there is at least one other person involved in the process, and we need to know about that person, too. What has that person been taught about her or his work? How do we imagine that person in the process?
Teaching introduces a whole variety of concerns that begin with language acquisition, but that's probably the easiest part. As the eminent translator Michael Henry Heim once put it, learning the language is a technical detail, by which I think he meant that the real challenge is learning to write. But there's more.
For instance, how might the unarticulated often unexamined assumptions and biases of translators go hand in glove with abuses of power, or various kinds of cultural and political exploitation? How might a business model that privileges speed and efficiency, not to mention work for hire, conceal inequities and racism and a host of banalities of evil as one culture is imagined by another through translated works? How might an aestheticist model (I just like the work, it's just a good novel, poem, and so on) potentially serve the interests of major languages over minor ones, centralizing regimes, international media conglomerates, and so on? Are translators studying these things? Should they be?
It occurs to me that there is an enormous divide between the kind of making approach that is central to the professional world of the AWP and the kind of analysis approach that is central to the world of the MLA. These two organizations now rival each other in terms of their size, with 10,000 attendees for each of their national conventions. The participants at this conference were less familiar with the AWP, so I did my best to characterize it, not as Michael Martone once put it (your high school reunion without the jocks) but in comparative terms: the AWP is attended mostly by young people, and then older people doing their best to appear younger than they actually are. The MLA is the opposite. Another way to think of this, still comparatively: at the AWP people still think that primary texts are primary; at the MLA, secondary texts are now primary, a formulation that I have borrowed from David Hamilton.
Translation seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance, with a number of new programs springing up in a variety of universities around the U.S. in the past eight years or so. It is nothing like the number of new creative writing programs that have been formed (about 150 since 2004 according to the AWP), but it is also not part of the crisis in language-and-literature education that has seen programs closing down.
I left the conference feeling hopeful that translation's in-between being, while always difficult from an institutional standpoint (because when you're in between you're neither this nor that, which makes it hard to say you're central) might serve as a bridge or nexus between the worlds of making and analysis, translating some of the best parts of each for the other.
May 4, 2012
I never quite believe in spring when it comes. In mid-March, I mean; the calendar date always seems premature, someone's wishful thinking. On March 20—this year's so-called first day of spring—I remember I wore a winter coat and still hadn't opened my umbrella. But this week, spring burst from the clouds with rain and wind and thunder and lightning that had us Iowans taking our weather radios to bed. I'm not complaining, though; I'm grateful. I'm grateful for the reminder that the virtual world I live in most days (via laptop, iPhone, Kindle, and TV) isn't the same world my body lives in. We forget, I think, that we're bound to geography, that while we wander through cyberspace, we also move through earth-space—but the Midwest reminds us, particularly in spring, when its atmospheric arsenal cuts off the power to our digital cosmos, leaving us sitting surprised in the dark, breathing too loudly and trying to remember the arrangement of our furniture.
Anyway, I've been thinking about landscape. I suppose I have been since the reception for TIR's editor emeritus David Hamilton two weeks ago, at which Lynne (our managing editor) gave an inspired speech associating David's gift for mentoring with his Midwestern-farm-bred attention to landscape and weather, an attention that has informed his teaching and writing, his way of being, way of caring.
And so, when, in the process of cataloguing our back issues this morning, I came across Michael Martone's essay "Flatness" in our Spring 1988 issue—a meditation on the Midwestern landscape, on our flatness, our attention to it, informing our art—I couldn't resist posting it here.